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“Disappearing Parents” Report Details Separation of Parents & Children Resulting from Immigration Enforcement

May 6, 2011

A report released today by the Southwest Institute for Research on Women and the Bacon Immigration Law and Policy Program describes families entangled in two vast bureaucracies: the federal immigration enforcement system and the state child welfare system.

The failure of these two systems to work together results in abrupt separations of parents and children after a parent is swept up in immigration enforcement and, at times, long-term stays in foster care for youth whose parents are detained or deported. 

The report, Disappearing Parents: A Report on Immigration Enforcement and the Child Welfare System, is based on over a year of research, including over fifty surveys and twenty interviews with juvenile court judges, attorneys representing children and parents in juvenile court, and case workers in Child Protective Services.    

 “The surveys and interviews we undertook make clear that the child welfare system regularly encounters families with at least one parent in immigration detention or deportation proceedings.  And yet no mechanisms or policies have been adopted, either by the federal immigration system or the state child welfare system, to address these complex cases,” said Nina Rabin, the lead researcher and author of the report. 

In the report, attorneys, judges, and caseworkers in the child welfare system describe widespread confusion about how to contact parents once they are picked up by immigration enforcement.  Many describe cases in which a parent suddenly disappeared after an encounter with immigration, and as a result, their children have spent long periods of time in the foster care system.  Others report cases in which domestic violence victims were unreachable in detention centers, and as a result, their abusive spouse took custody of the children. 

“What we heard from the child welfare system suggests that immigrant parents are being systemically denied the same due process protections that other parents receive when their children – many of whom are U.S. citizens — are in state custody,” said Rabin, who directs the Bacon Immigration Law and Policy Program at the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law.  “The result is U.S. citizen children losing their primary caregivers, at times permanently.  At the same time, immigrant parents face the possibility of termination of their parental rights due to their inability to comply with the juvenile court’s timeline for regaining custody so long as they remain in immigration detention.”

Key findings of the report include:

  • Disappearing Parents: attorneys, judges, and caseworkers all consistently described the difficulty of locating parents apprehended by immigration enforcement.
  • Better Off in Jail: many personnel in the child welfare system commented that incarcerated parents are actually better off in some state jails and prisons than in immigration detention facilities.  Unlike immigrant detainees, they are relatively easy to reach, can be transported to hearings, and have access to programming so they can work towards reunification while incarcerated.
  • Prolonged Detention: Contrary to its public statements regarding prioritizing detention resources for serious criminal aliens, ICE often holds parents with children in state custody in detention for long periods, even when the parents have no serious criminal history and have strong incentives not to abscond. 
  • The Climate of Fear: child welfare personnel described stories of immigrant children too fearful of the government to come to family court for their custody hearings, an undocumented father so fearful of traveling by bus that he was unable to reunify with his infant daughter, and a young teenager running away from the child welfare system altogether to be with her deported mother.

The report contains detailed recommendations for the Department of Homeland Security, state child welfare systems, and Congress.  Recommendations range from providing enhanced legal assistance to immigrant parents with U.S. citizen children in state custody to appointing key liaison positions in ICE and the child welfare system to improve the ability of the two systems to communicate and coordinate with one another. 

The report will be available beginning on May 5, 2011, at

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